Scottish Welfare Fund review: final report

A comprehensive review of the Scottish Welfare Fund.

1. Introduction and methods

About the Scottish Welfare Fund

The Scottish Welfare Fund (SWF, or 'the Fund') was introduced in 2013[2] as a national, grant-based scheme, administered by local authorities based on Scottish Government guidance.[3] Its introduction followed the abolition of the UK Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) administered Discretionary Social Fund, which left Scotland (and the rest of the UK) without a central scheme for emergency welfare assistance. The aim of the SWF, as set out in the statutory guidance, is "to provide a safety net to people on low incomes" through the provision of grants.

There are two types of SWF grant people may apply for – a Crisis Grant, which is provided where an individual is facing a disaster or emergency, and a Community Care Grant, which is provided when the applicant needs help to establish or maintain a settled home (for example, to move out of, or avoid homelessness). Both grants are "intended to meet occasional or short-term needs and not to provide an alternative source of regular income". Crisis grants must be made in cash or cash equivalent, unless the local authority considers it would be an advantage to the applicant to provide the grant in another way. Community Care Grants can be fulfilled in cash or cash equivalent, or in kind – typically by the provision of goods and furnishings.

The guidance also sets out that it is a "budget-limited scheme" – funding is provided annually by the Scottish Government and may be topped up by individual local authorities, but local authorities are expected to manage the Fund within this budget. This may involve changing the 'priority-level' applications must meet during the year, to ensure that funding does not run out. In addition, while guidance on administering the Fund is set centrally, by the Scottish Government, this guidance also allows local authorities "extensive discretion over how the scheme is delivered in their area, from taking and processing applications to fulfilment of grants". These features distinguish the SWF, as a discretionary fund, from benefits that are paid on a strict entitlement basis.

Applicants have the right to review the decision on their application. Initial, 'First Tier' reviews are conducted by the local authority. If the applicant is not satisfied with the outcome, they can request a further, independent 'Second Tier' review of the decision by the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO).

Since its launch in 2013, the SWF has helped more than 470,000 households with awards totalling more than £341 million. A third of households were families with children, while just over half were single people.[4]

The logic model, below, shows key elements of how the Fund is intended to operate, and the short, medium and long-term outcomes it may contribute to.

Figure 1 – Scottish Welfare Fund logic model[5]


  • Scottish Government Funding + Local Authority funding to augment awards budget
  • Local authority staff team: time & training
  • Publicity/advertising of the SWF, including up to date and accessible information
  • Referrals from local partners
  • Support and advocacy for applicants
  • Robust assessment and appeals process
  • Scottish Government statutory guidance on administration of the Fund
  • SWF practitioners forum
  • Clear eligibility criteria
  • Clear and accessible application process, via at least 3 channels (e.g. online, phone, F2F, paper-based applications for those in prison)
  • IT systems for applications/decision-making
  • Data and performance monitoring tools
  • Suppliers to provide/deliver CCG goods

Outputs - Activities

  • Fair and consistent assessment of applications across LAs
  • Decisions in line with statutory timelines, clearly documented, and appropriately communicated to applicants
  • Fair, accessible and timely review process
  • CG: Timely provision of cash or cash equivalent grants
  • CCG: good quality, appropriate goods provided in a timely manner
  • Appropriate onwards signposting and active referrals

Outputs - Participation/Reach

  • CCG: Individuals who need help to maintain or establish a settled home, including: Prison leavers; Homeless people; Those facing exceptional pressure.
  • CG: Individuals/ households in crisis (without alternative means)
  • All areas of Scotland
  • Not applied to SWF within last 28 days (unless relevant change of circs).

Short-term Outcomes

  • CG: Meets immediate financial need and averts crisis
  • CG: able to manage crisis in flexible way (as cash grant)
  • CCG: Helps recipient move into / stay in settled home
  • CCG: families able to support family members on home leave from prison
  • Both: Recipients benefit from further help/support they been linked with through SWF
  • Both: reduces stress
  • Both: reduce need to use expensive forms of credit
  • Both: Reduction in reoffending (short or longer term)

Medium-long term Outcomes

  • CG: Reduced incidence of repeat crisis
  • CG: Reduction in expenditure on Crisis Grants as result of intervention to prevent recurrent crisis
  • CCG: Remain in settled home / reduce homelessness/ inappropriate placement in care setting
  • CCG: Reduce ongoing costs (e.g. by providing insulating curtains)
  • Both: Applicants access support for ongoing needs
  • Both: Maximise access to routine benefits/services entitled to
  • Both: Greater sense of financial control / ability to deal with crisis/change
  • Both: improvements to mental health/confidence
  • Both: reduce need for additional intervention – e.g. foodbank use, social work, other charitable support
  • Both: more people become aware of SWF and how to access support in a crisis.

Assumptions: People who need the SWF hear about it and are confident and able (physically and mentally) to apply; applicants know what they need and are able to ask for this;budget/value of awards is sufficient to meet need; payments are used as intended; shared expectations on the purpose and model; councils are able to predict future need

Risks/external factors: Cost of living increases (including impact on cost of items provided through CCG); pandemic impacts; specific local disaster (e.g. floods); policy/funding of the wider benefit system (UK and Scottish); adequacy of other systems (e.g. housing, community care, transition support);administration of SISGs impacting on CG/CCG processing; climate change

Aims of the review

In March 2021, the Scottish Government promised a full review of the Fund in the first year of the new Parliament.[6] The overarching aim of the review was to provide as clear and robust a picture as possible of the effectiveness of the SWF in meeting its aim of supporting people on low incomes who require support due to crisis or to live independently, and to identify issues which either improve or hinder the Fund in meeting this purpose. A number of key themes and questions were agreed for the review, to ensure it addresses this aim:

  • Purpose of the fund – What are people's understandings and views of the purpose of the SWF?
  • Evidence of underlying need - What is the level and nature of underlying need for the SWF?
  • Factors shaping demand on the Fund - What are the key factors impacting on levels of demand?
  • Delivery model - How does the current SWF delivery model compare with alternatives?
  • Awareness and promotion - (How) do potential applicants who might need it become aware of the SWF? Is it promoted appropriately?
  • Funding - Are levels of funding for the SWF appropriate?
  • Experiences and outcomes - What impacts does applying for / receiving grants through the SWF have on applicants / recipients?
  • Assessment and review - How fair and consistent is SWF decision-making across Scotland?
  • Impacts of Covid-19 - What impacts has Covid had on the SWF?

A full list of more detailed subsidiary questions that helped guide the review are included in Annex A.

Summary of methods

The review involved multiple methods and sources of data and was conducted in two phases. Phase 1 comprised:

  • A review of existing literature and evidence on the SWF and comparable funds in the rest of the UK
  • Analysis of both published and unpublished quantitative data on the Fund, based primarily on data collected by local authorities and collated by the Scottish Government, in addition to data on Second Tier reviews provided by the SPSO, national statistics and survey data, and data provided by the Scottish Government to the Scottish Prison Service on prison release, homeless presentations by people who were previously in prison and applications for Community Care Grants where the applicant had left prison.
  • Data collection from all 32 local authorities on the operation of the Fund in their area, collected via proforma and follow-up interview, with a Senior Manager or Managers responsible for the fund locally. The SPSO were also interviewed as part of Phase 1 fieldwork.

Phase 2 involved in-depth qualitative interviews focusing primarily on six case study local authority areas. Case study areas were selected to include a mix of local authorities with higher and lower levels of applications and variations in other elements of Fund operation (for example, levels of cases going to review), as well as a mix of urban and rural areas. Three main groups of people were interviewed at Phase 2:

  • Applicants to the Fund – 46 people took part in one-to-one interviews, including:
    • 31 people who had applied for Crisis Grants, including 20 who had been unsuccessful or partially successful (who only received part of what they had requested) and 25 repeat Crisis Grant applicants
    • 27 Community Care Grant applications, including 10 unsuccessful or partially successful applicants and 9 repeat Community Care Grant applicants.
  • Local authority staff – 19 members of staff, drawn from the teams responsible for day-to-day processing and decision-making on SWF applications, took part in small group interviews (one for each case study area)
  • Local external stakeholders – 16 local stakeholders, drawn from a range of organisations that support or work with applicants, were interviewed from across the six case study areas to provide an external perspective on the operation of the Fund. Organisations included: prisons, advice agencies, housing or homelessness support organisations, domestic abuse support, and food banks.

The review has also been supported by an Advisory Group, comprising the Scottish Government and key stakeholders from local authorities, COSLA, Scottish Prison Service, SPSO and the third sector, who have provided critical comment and advice at key stages.

The key elements and phasing of research for the review are shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2 – Key elements and phasing of SWF review
This diagram shows the key elements and phasing of the SWF review. Phase 1, from January to July 2022, included developing a logic model, an evidence review, analysis of management information, and interviews with 32 local authorities, all of which fed into an interim report. Phase 2, which ran from June to December 2022, included interviews with SWF applicants and additional local stakeholders, a validation workshop, and the final report.

Challenges and limitations

The aim of the review was to provide as robust a picture of the operation and impact of the Fund as possible. However, as with any research, there were some challenges and some limitations to the data which are important to highlight.

Interpreting local and Scotland-wide evidence

As discussed at the start, the SWF is a Scotland-wide scheme but is delivered by local authorities. The purpose of this review was to look at how the scheme is operating across Scotland to identify issues and learning for its future. To do so, and to address the research questions set out earlier, it necessarily had to look at differences between local authorities. However, it is not intended to provide robust analysis at individual local authority-level. As such, individual local authorities are not identified by name in this main report, either in reporting the qualitative or quantitative data.

A separate Data Analysis Appendix, which presents the full quantitative analysis of management data undertaken for this review does include more explicit comparisons of findings for different local authorities, some of which is already in the public domain as part of the Scottish Government's SWF statistics series. It would not be feasible to present all this data here. This quantitative analysis of local authority variations identifies various patterns which are drawn out in this report and which individual local authorities, the Scottish Government and others may wish to explore further. However, caution should be applied in drawing definitive conclusions about individual local authorities, since a robust analysis of the findings for any individual area would require further reflection and contextualisation. This level of individual local authority analysis was beyond the scope and purpose of this report.

Limitations to existing evidence on the SWF and analogous schemes

The evidence review drew on a large body of policy papers, guidance and research which varied in quality: some studies lacked detail on research methods, for example, or covered a small number of local authorities. Much of the existing evidence was based on position papers or research by third sector organisations or campaigning groups and, as such, reflects their particular positions on the Fund and on wider policies. This variability in the robustness and independence of existing evidence referred to in the review should be borne in mind.

There was also a relative dearth of evidence on the operation and impact of analogous schemes elsewhere in the UK, which limited the scope for learning from the operation and impacts of these schemes.

Known issues in the quantitative management data

The quality and range of data on the SWF collected by local authorities and collated by the Scottish Government far exceeds that available publicly for analogous schemes elsewhere in the UK. However, there were nonetheless some known gaps and issues in this management data. These are discussed in more detail in the Data Analysis Appendix that accompanies this main report,[7] but include:

  • Large amounts of missing data for some indicators (such as income and ethnicity)
  • Some significant errors in reporting detailed in the Data Analysis Appendix (affecting Glasgow and Edinburgh in particular).[8]

The data also includes somewhat limited data on different equalities characteristics – as well as missing data on ethnicity, there is no data on sexual orientation, or marital status for example. At the time of writing, the Scottish Government was conducting an equalities review of much of its data collection and the authors understand that there are ongoing discussions around how to improve the ability of the SWF dataset to answer questions about the experiences of different equality groups.

Issues relating to the timeframe covered

All the data included in this review was collected and analysed at a particular point in time. However, as chapter 2 makes clear, the context in which the Fund is operating is rapidly shifting – particularly with regard to the unfolding cost of living crisis, but also with respect to other issues, such the ongoing managed migration of those on legacy benefits to Universal Credit. This is particularly an issue for the quantitative data – the most recent annual statistics only cover the period up to March 2022 (although quarterly data has been presented up to June 2022), so that more recent issues and challenges – some of which have been raised in qualitative interviews for this review – may not yet be apparent in the quantitative data.

The qualitative data was also collected at specific points in time (May to June 2022 for interviews with local authority managers, and July to September 2022 for interviews with applicants, local authority delivery teams and external local stakeholders), and may not reflect more recent issues and challenges.

Moreover, much of the quantitative analysis for the review was undertaken in the first half of 2022, at which point the Annual Update for 2021/22 was not available. This report does include more recent figures, from the Scottish Government's 2021/22 SWF annual statistics, but the more complex multivariate analysis drawn on in this report is based on the data comparable to the annual report data available at the time of analysis.

The impact of Covid-19

Analysis of the quantitative data in particular also required some decisions about which timeframes analysis should focus on in light of significant changes to the Fund during the Covid-19 pandemic. Data for 2020/21 in particular reflected both a very large one-off additional injection of funding (the £57.5 million allocated to the Fund in 2020/21 included a £22 million Covid-19 allocation)[9] and relaxation of rules about the maximum number of applications allowed in a 12 month period, alongside the fact that SWF teams were also tasked with delivering Covid Self-Isolation Support Grants (SISGs). Given this, 2020/21 is likely to be a very atypical year in terms of the funding and operation of the SWF.

In the light of this, the quantitative analysis of management data carried out for the review focused on:

  • Overall trends over time (at Scotland-level) from 2013/14 up to 2020/21 or 2021/22where available. There is a particular focus on comparisons between 2020/21 and 2019/20 data to show experiences and approaches pre-Covid and during the first year of the pandemic.
  • Comparisons between local authorities, taking 2019/20 as the benchmark for this, so that figures are not skewed by differences resulting from the pandemic.

The impacts of Covid were also apparent in the qualitative interviews. These are drawn out as appropriate throughout the report, and summarised in chapter 9.

The profile of applicants interviewed

Recruiting applicants to the review was challenging. Each case study local authority was asked to support the review by contacting a random sample of applicants and asking them to 'opt in' if they were willing to be interviewed. However, this process took longer than expected and required local authorities to contact a far higher number of applicants than originally envisioned. The review team also worked with local stakeholders to try and identify additional applicants, but relatively few opted in through this route. Among those who did contact the research team to opt in within the interviewing period, not everyone went on to take part in an interview, due to drop-outs, non-response and broken appointments.

In order to boost the number of applicants included in the review, the Scottish Government wrote out to the Social Security Experience Panel (a panel of people involved in consultation to inform devolved benefit design and delivery) to ask anyone with experience of the SWF to contact the research team if they were interested in participating. Overall, 42 of the 46 applicants interviewed were from the six case study areas (4-9 per area), and four were recruited from outwith the case study areas, via the Social Security Experience Panel.

Overall, the applicants interviewed were diverse in terms of experiences of SWF (applicants that had different levels of success of the two grants) and a number of personal characteristics, including:

  • Gender – the sample included 28 women and 18 men
  • Age – the review heard from people aged 16 to 66, including 12 aged under 35, 25 aged 35-54, and 9 aged 55 or older
  • Household type – the sample was skewed towards single adult households (28/46 interviewees), which is perhaps unsurprising given that overall 53% of households receiving SWF grants were single person households.[10] However, it also included 12 single parents and five from couple households with children.
  • Disability– 35 of 46 participants had a disability or long-term condition.

The sample also included people with a diverse range of other experiences that might be associated with being more vulnerable at some point in their lives, including: severe mental health issues; domestic abuse; homelessness; addiction issues; being a prison leaver; and care experience.

However, the sample was less diverse in terms of ethnicity – there were only two interviewees who did not identify as white, and none who spoke English as an Additional Language (EAL). In addition, only four participants were working at the time of their interview (although others had been working recently – with their application to the Fund often associated with loss of employment). The lack of diversity in terms of ethnicity is a particular weakness of the sample, given that ethnicity is also often missing from the management data. In taking forward the findings, consideration could be given to working with organisations that support people on low incomes from particular ethnic backgrounds to identify any missing issues that may be more likely to occur for their clients.

The range of perspectives included

The review includes a wide range of perspectives, from applicants, local authorities and the third sector. At the same time, there are many stakeholders for the Fund and it is possible that there are additional views on the current and future operation of the Fund that are not captured here. One group in particular that the review did not hear from directly was those who have not applied to the Fund, in spite of being eligible to do so. However, some insight into the reasons why people do not apply was gathered both from local stakeholders working with those groups, and from applicants themselves, some of whom had opted not to apply to the Fund in the past, in spite of likely being eligible to do so.

Report structure

The remainder of this report is structured largely around the overarching themes and research questions, set out above:

  • Chapter 2 discusses findings on the purpose of the Fund – whether it is still delivering its original stated purpose, and how professionals and applicants understand the purpose and eligibility criteria for the scheme – as well as views on the current delivery model.
  • Chapter 3 explores various possible estimates of underlying need for the Fund, and what these and other data tell us about the changing levels of need and demand for the Fund. It examines the factors that shape need and demand for the Fund and considers whether there are any groups that are in need of the support the Fund offers who currently miss out on this.
  • Chapter 4 assesses evidence on patterns of spending on the Fund over time and perceptions of the adequacy of current and future funding levels.
  • Chapter 5 reviews approaches and perspectives on promotion of the Fund and how potential applicants become aware of it.
  • Chapter 6 examines experiences of applying to the Fund, including differences in mode of application and waiting times for decisions.
  • Chapter 7 explores outcomes from applications in detail, drawing on all the various data sources to review differences in outcomes over time, between different groups of applicants, and between local authorities. It considers the impacts of both successful and unsuccessful applications from the perspective of applicants, including experiences of onward signposting and referrals.
  • Chapter 8 focuses on application assessment and review processes. It looks at what the available evidence indicates about consistency in decision-making, and explores patterns and outcomes from cases where the applicants requested the decision be reviewed.
  • Chapter 9 draws together findings on the impacts of Covid-19 on the operation of the SWF.
  • Chapter 10 summarises suggestions for improvement to the SWF, drawing on interviews with local authorities, external stakeholders and applicants.

Each chapter begins with a summary of key points. Copies of the proforma used to gather information from local authorities and the topic guides used to structure interviews are provided in annexes attached to this report, while the detailed quantitative analysis of management data is provided in a separately published Data Analysis Appendix.

Report conventions

This report draws on findings from various data sources, as discussed above. The report is structured thematically, rather than by method. More detailed figures and tables to support the overarching findings from the quantitative analysis of management data can be found in a separate Data Analysis Appendix.

Where findings are based on qualitative data, the report avoids the use of quantifying language (including terms such as 'most' or 'a few') as far as possible, since the purpose of qualitative data is to identify the range of views and experiences on an issue, rather than to estimate prevalence.

As discussed above, in order to preserve confidentiality of participants in the review, local authorities are not named in this report – quotes from local authorities are identified only by a random number (for managers) or letter (for delivery staff). Similarly, quotes from applicants and external local stakeholders interviewed for the review are identified only by number and brief details relevant to understanding their perspective (for example, the type of organisation or, for applicants, whether they are a repeat applicant).



Back to top